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Potter short on magic

The second film in the series of J.K. Rowling book adaptations is only a marginal success

One of the more magical elements in 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets' Ñ the second film adaptation of J.K. Rowling's series about a young wizard and his cheeky pals Ñ is the newly introduced 'house elf' Dobby.

Completely computer-generated, Dobby speaks of himself in the third person in a squeaky, discordant voice. He punishes himself for speaking out of turn by banging his head into walls, slamming his fingers in doors or attempting to bash himself with lamps.

Here's the magic: For all that, Dobby still isn't remotely as annoying as Jar-Jar Binks of 'Star Wars' infamy. Oh, the potential for annoyance is definitely there. But director Chris Columbus somehow manages to pull off the trick of making Dobby, if not appealing, then at least not actively irritating.

This sums up the overall approach that Columbus has taken with both of his 'Potter' films Ñ they don't dazzle, but they don't annoy, either.

'Chamber of Secrets' is a pleasant enough mixed bag, offering delightful set pieces with flying cars, dueling wizards and terrifying monsters alternated with sections of deadly sluggishness. It feels as if Columbus is granting the audience a chance to nap after every exhausting bit of adventure.

As with its predecessor, 'Chamber' is an impressive achievement that translates a much-loved book with painstaking faithfulness. And it's certainly an entertaining ride, despite many talky, slow scenes. But something seems to be missing. A sense of real magic, perhaps. 'Chamber' is a likable movie but never inspires actual awe.

As the second-year wizards, Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Emma Watson (Hermione) and Rupert Grint (Ron) have grown into their roles with impressive confidence. After a summer apart, they discover that a sinister threat has gripped the academy; students are found frozen into unmoving statues and a monster may be skulking about, having been released from the eponymous Chamber.

Of course, there's the requisite Quidditch match Ñ with broom-riding Harry and his nemesis, Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), chasing the elusive snitch through the supports of the stadium's bleachers. It's a breathtaking and joyous bit of work Ñ even if it does rip off the speeder-bike chase through the forests of Endor in 'Return of the Jedi.'

Kenneth Branagh joins the cast this time as Gilderoy Lockhart, the smarmy new Defense of the Dark Arts teacher. His too-short wand duel with Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) is one of the film's high points.

John Williams' score contains some of his best work in years. But, like the majority of Williams' scores, it tends to overpower the film in places.

The music's simply too much. Too big, too intrusive, too manipulative. Columbus, who learned the art of emotional string-pulling while sitting at Steven Spielberg's knee, uses Williams' music as a loud, insistent plea for misty-eyed joy.

Despite its flaws, 'Chamber' is an engaging film with much to admire. And Dobby's no Jar-Jar. For that, we should all breathe a heavy sigh of relief.